According to the formal definition of a museum it is a “…non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” Here in Ethiopia, we enjoy myriad museums which document and preserve a wide range of topics from art to zoology. While ethnology, religion, science and other compelling topics inspire small to large scale museums dotting the capital city, it’s the Red Terror Martyr’s Memorial Museum (RTMMM) that has taken center stage recently.
RTMMM, designed by renowned Ethiopian architect Fasil Giorgis, was opened in 2010 receiving a range of responses from Ethiopians. The museum memorializes those who perished due to murder and torture at the hands of the Derg regime, during the Red Terror period. Content in the permanent exhibition include instruments of torture, “skulls and bones, coffins, bloody clothes, photographs of victims” original paintings and other ephemera presented with the message “…never again…”. However, some citizens felt this bitter history was best forgotten and just too painful to discuss, much more visit. On the other hand, the reported thousands of visitors monthly, think RTMMM is crucial. These visitors are on a need-to-know mission and also wish to pay homage to the victims in order to help ensure a future free of such heinous acts.
On Monday May 2nd, photos and videos circulated widely on social media of the Museum’s shattered ten-meter-high glass front, surrounded by large stones hurled during the sacred celebration of Eid, following the month-long Ramadan of fasting and prayer, at Meskel Square. After the fact, numerous stories have been unfolding, arrests have been made and investigations ongoing. Luckily, there were no reported fatalities however women, children and elders were said to be injured. This was a sad moment for all Ethiopians. Responsibility must be taken as every life is precious and all facilities which preserve and educate, must be protected. Ethiopia is going through a metamorphosis and though painful, arduous and mind-boggling at times, to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “We shall overcome.” The RTMMM is an opportunity to remind ourselves of what has been sacrificed and how survivors, such as the docents in the museum, desire a peaceful path to a safe and prosperous sovereign nation.
The USA has 16 Jewish Holocaust Museums through-out the country. While 47 can be found worldwide from Albania to Uruguay hosting exhibitions, monuments and/or centers devoted to the tragic history of attempted genocide perpetrated by the Nazi regime. These spaces are considered sacred, though not places of worship. Like RTMMM, these spaces speak to atrocities of people whose loved ones live to also tell their stories for generations to come. These people were fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters – kith and kin. Lives lost, but not forgotten, are preserved in the RTMMM with rare documents, books, and paintings which provide reflection and education. The resilience of the RTMMM staff is not so easily stiffled however, as mentioned before, many are survivors of the Red Terror.
This knowledge is first-hand, based on my role as a co-curator, brought on 12 years ago to display two commission works of Ethiopian fine artist, Prince Merid Tafesse. The profound painter, whose family was also victim of the terrible period, painted two massive 5M x 5M acrylic on canvas works of art entitled, “That Moment” and “Mama Kebebush Admasu.” Both are displayed high on the wall above the RTMMM entrance stairway leading to the research library. “That Moment” is a striking artistic account of the lining up of men (all ages) to face the firing squad, who ironically will bill the family for bullets after burial. “Mama Kebebush Admasu” is a haunting image in a range of reds and shades of grey, representing a mother standing over shadows, representing four graves. A true story, this piece narrates the heart wrenching experience of the mother who lost 4 sons simultaneously in the Red Terror. The work is titled in her honor.
Museums and cultural spaces will be a major part of the “overcoming” narrative in Ethiopia. Art, history, heritage…places that preserve, promote and protect are all important to cultivating understanding, providing education and instilling humanity. Messages of responsibility, accountability, forgiveness, justice and peace are to be found in museums, for the people. The collective duty and aspiration must therefore be inextricably linked to the notion of respect and regard for history…our trials, tribulations and triumphs with unabashed commitment to changing hearts and minds for the betterment of all.

Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.


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